Back in the Nineties, when hip-hop zealots questioned the intelligence of Beyoncé songs like Destiny’s Child’s careerist anthem “Survivor” and the sex-as-junk-food hit “Bootylicious,” there was little regard for the female agency that she now channels into an intersectional act, trading on gender and race — specifically what juveniles call “Black Girl Magic.” The Disney+ platform considers it a cash cow and so cravenly markets her latest venture Black Is King — an 85-minute series of music videos that repackage songs from the 2019 reboot film The Lion King.
Now, Beyoncé encounters no cultural resistance; like her peers LeBron James and Colin Kaepernick, the singer-dancer-songwriter-actress simply follows fads — the “Black Lives Matter” and “Black Girl Magic” fads — without any historical or political foundation. These uninformed “influencers” display a simpleton’s version of ethnic pride, epitomized by Beyoncé’s going full “African” in extravagant costumes, makeup, ethnographic photography, and drumbeats. It’s the same narcissistic excess and contrivance that Robert Downey Jr. warned against in Tropic Thunder when actors go “full retard.”
In Beyoncé’s Black Is King fantasy, all black people — and all Africa — are the same. It’s as if she recognizes no distinction among Ilhan Omar, Idi Amin, Robert Mugabe, Miriam Makeba, Chinua Achebe, Ousmane Sembene, Haile Selassie, Idrissa Ouedraogo, Brenda Fassie, Nelson Mandela, Iman, John Kani, let alone Patrice Lumumba, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, or King Sunny Ade, or particular ideas her ancestors represented.
Black Is King’s assorted daydreams, designs, ethnicities, cosmologies, and polyglot nostrums (“Lost languages flow out of our mouths”) are sold as “a visual album.” It follows the coffee-table-book graphic appropriations of the music video genre’s peak achievements — stealing shamelessly from Hype Williams and Mark Romanek — only to illustrate how disoriented, misguided, and commercialized black identity has become. Black Is King’s faux-politics spring from Beyoncé’s agency (“agency” being a euphemism for “privilege”), yet it is insulting because Beyoncé uses the Disney cartoon The Lion King as the primal, biblical source of her pretend race consciousness.
Compare the obnoxiously titled Black Is King to 1979’s Uncle Jam Wants You, by George Clinton’s band Funkadelic. Nothing on Beyoncé’s album is so powerful as “(Not Just) Knee Deep,” a danceable rationalization of black life that defied society’s racial quagmire. That same year, Clinton’s twin band Parliament released Gloryhallastoopid with the joyous “(We Are Those) Party People” (“It’s all about big fun / All about having big fun”). Funkadelic and Parliament were brilliant and genuine — R & B equivalents to British art-rockers Roxy Music — whose Detroit-based members were firsthand witnesses to the civil-rights struggle and thus committed to musical revitalization. But Black Is King starts with a star-baby-comet hurtling toward planet Earth then cuts to Beyoncé in at least five different sequined body stockings. It is quintessentially trite, but she sure is a curvy fetish object.
That Uncle Jam Wants You album cover depicted George Clinton sitting on a wicker-style high-backed throne, in front of an American flag with multicolored stripes, similar to Black Panther spokesman Huey Newton’s famous pose. It was a visual coup: Clinton’s image swayed angry, pompous political rhetoric toward funk — an aesthetic overriding politics. (Parliament’s 1977 masterpiece, Funkentelechy vs. the Placebo Syndrome, proposed entelechy, based on Aristotle’s distinction between matter and essence, i.e., soul.) Parliament-Funkadelic took the potential in African Americans’ struggle for freedom and ecstasy and made dance floor actuality. Clinton’s funk genius (superlative gut-bucket blues) is déclassé, not something the Obamas would lower themselves for. Its rousing, elemental imagery (“We are the party people”) is far from Beyoncé’s moneyed affectations, the Kalorama exploitation of black political trends.
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Black Is King glamorizes class and economic division through an overload of ethnic and hierarchical symbols. Its monarchy sentiment (reminiscent of Eddie Murphy’s Coming to America and Michael Jackson’s Remember the Time music video) is employed to ease fragile egos. And Queen B is the new ruler. She already enjoys the royal privilege of submissive fans who don’t seem to care that she is out of touch with what most people are going through and that she now offers a bling show as bread and circuses during COVID. Beyoncé sells Afrocentricity like her husband Jay-Z once bragged about selling drugs (materialism is Jay-Z’s new drug). Unfortunately, the video’s highlight, “Don’t Jealous Me,” doesn’t equal the sequence in John Boorman’s Exorcist II: The Heretic where tribal chieftain James Earl Jones opened his mouth to unfurl a visualized miracle. Instead, Beyoncé’s ersatz-sovereignty derives from the popularity of Marvel’s Black Panther, which confirmed Millennial blacks and whites begging to be treated like children.
Beyoncé probably doesn’t even understand that she’s promoting racial division and monarchic rule. Yet these loosely linked, incoherent videos prevent Black Is King from building meaning or power, and achieving art. The underlying message is about privilege and economic advantage and cultural bias. Its rhetoric is doggerel: “As kings we have to take responsibility for stepping outside of the barriers they put us in.” (“Barriers”? In 2020?)
In “The Other Side,” Beyoncé rips a melody from Stevie Wonder’s “If It’s Magic” and casts herself as Moses’s mother Jochebed, launched into a war-torn African landscape, a dislocated narrative intended to beautify ancestral experience all while ignoring the American descendants of slavery who were the basis of Toni Morrison’s Beloved. But give Beyoncé credit for mentioning “We all come from God,” rather than Oprah’s worship of “the Universe.”
Beyoncé, taken on her own terms, is both self-serving and exploitative. She’s gotten worse since 2016’s overrated Lemonade — which was too depressing to write about — and her Super Bowl halftime show in which the fake black militancy of “Formation” was too silly to watch. Her Louvre takeover video, Apes**t, a duet with Jay-Z, was simply obnoxious, a cultural setback into extreme narcissism. But Black Is King is no better. It contends, “We have always been wonderful. We were beauty before they knew what beauty was.” This degrades the courage of James Brown’s 1968 “(Say It Loud) I’m Black and I’m Proud,” which answered decades of Jim Crow deprecation. (When asked why he recorded that sentiment, Brown answered, “It was time somebody did.”)
These two-dozen or so clips in Black Is King should not be viewed in one sitting. The full-bodied dancing is robust (emphasis on the posterior), but there’s not a single song you’d want to hear twice. The idolatry of self is unrelenting: from Jay-Z playing with life-size chess pieces (but not Mancala) to Queen B swanning in a leopard-skin gown toward her leopard-spot-painted Rolls-Royce — which is a hoot. Every Chi-Raq gang member will want one. No doubt this bling will launch a thousand worthless Africana-studies dissertations approved by Henry Louis Gates at Harvard.
The pretense that Beyoncé “directed” Black Is King is the final insult. Her cadre of co-directors mostly imitate Hype Williams’s 1997 Busta Rhymes video Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See (complete with witch-doctor figure). The editing-together of images and random ideas expresses no single skill or sensibility. Its effect is neither rhythmic nor aesthetic; it’s attention-deficit-disorder editing for viewers who cannot comprehend or assimilate visual information but have a distorted sense of black cultural history. That leopard-spot Rolls, the Kehinde Wiley–style Annunciation portrait and even Beyoncé’s diamond-studded toothbrush are what W. C. Fields would call “too blatant.” The only way to combat Black Is King is to laugh at it.